Friday, August 11, 2006

Talent, terrorism and the shoulders of giants

Yesterday I wrote (Gordon's Notes: 8/09: How talented is this group?) that I thought the talent level of al Qaeda’s team has been pretty low the past five years.

I'm looking forward to learning more about the current crop of suspects (some of whom will likely turn out to be innocent); particularly how many have engineering or science degrees from serious institutions, etc. That will tell us if George Bush's al Qaeda recruitment strategy is bearing fruit. If it turns out that this is a talented bunch then we have to give even more credit to Pakistani, UK and US counter-terrorism efforts. Given the size of the conspiracy, however, I suspect they’re dolts. No-one with any brains would launch an effort that big from the United Kingdom.

Today I give credit to two recent public radio shows for emphasizing another part of the talent puzzle. One show was part of a superb series on supermax prisons and solitary confinement, the other was an interview this morning with a remarkable counter-terrorism expert. I wish the latter kept a blog ...

First the supermax. The inmates at supermax prisons are not generally known for their creativity, insight, or intelligence. So I was surprised by the range of ingenious and lethal techniques they deployed to support violence, commerce, and recreation. A handful of innovators, combined with modern and traditional communication channels, intense motivation and ample time to scheme, and memetic selection, have delivered advanced techniques to the average prisoner. These men and women stand on "the shoulder of (nasty) giants".

Then the counter-terrorism specialist. He pointed out that a large range of modern terrorist methodologies seem to have been developed by a few unfortunately talented IRA engineers and specialists. Their techniques and technologies, developed during the 1950s to 1980s (perhaps with some KGB help as well?) have been widely disseminated though print and spoken methods (I’m sure the net helps too). Apparently some of this team continues to work gainfully in South America (guess where?), though it’s not clear how inventive they are nowadays. Terrorists too have shoulders to stand on.

So the British terrorists (they were British citizens and terrorists, so they’re British terrorists) may have been executing a derivative attack, and they may have been dolts, but a lot of knowledge has been packaged to a point that even dolts can execute it. Process improvement, knowledge management, and the falling costs of lethal weapons — it’s all a part of the falling cost of havoc.

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